Sarcasm and ‘figures of speech’ are as old as language itself. From the Ivy League professor of literary criticism to the Oxbridge semantologist, from the illiterate farmer to the naked tribesman with a bone in his nose, no matter the language or the region of the world they all understand and use sarcasm and co in varying degrees of application and contexts.

Most surprisingly, it appears that sarcasm and ‘figures of speech’ (the supposed stuff of literary genius) have been recreated as new 21st Century “cultural imports” into Nigeria from the West. The novelty of sarcasm and co as “imported” is something present day authors and the literati delight in. In fact, where two or more Nigerian literary types are gathered and literature is being discussed the happiest moment of their conversation is when they agree “Nigerians do not get it” [i.e. sarcasm, irony, satire, humour]. I would like to learn of any of the over 200 Nigerian languages that is devoid of sarcasm and co.

Good or great writers actually lead readers (in taste and style), literary markets and literary education, and not wait and hope for them to “get it”. It is ironic that only faux or mediocre authors and literati will complain about readers not “getting it”, for their books or in general. Try reading Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce which were sometimes agonising reading experiences for me, the author never bothered an iota about whether any of his readers “got it”.

The Chinua Achebe’s criticism of the portrayal of the language of Africans in the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a point of reference. Chinua Achebe’s writing is effortlessly in the league of VS Naipaul, Ernest Hemmingway, Sinclair Lewis, Patrick White, Nadine Gordimer, Samuel Beckett etc. Nobel Laureates who wrote in English language. Achebe did not win the Nobel Prize for Literature mainly for challenging the portrayal of African people lacking the capability to make speech (thus figures of speech) in the Heart of Darkness necessitating him characterise Conrad as a “bloody racist”. The Western academy vexed, blacklisted him eternally on the basis of “how dare you speak beyond your place?” Achebe was an African after all but he was instrumental in making African literature worthy of high critical consideration; he never bothered about readers “getting it”, six decades ago.

Now we have authors and literati who aggrandise themselves by telling other Nigerians ‘what they do not know’ not through their writing (which should be an invaluable medium for getting their messages across to readers and their trade) but mere comment often with condescension, endorsing the very perception of Africans Achebe sacrificed for to eradicate. It is disturbing when authors and the literati to affirm at any opportunity that Nigerians are not sophisticated enough “to get” their writing / commentary or that of their cronies, but they are worthy of winning literary prizes. “Getting it” is perhaps now evidence of literary ability and genius all by itself. Sakpakpobi!

If “getting it” has become “the criterion” for understanding and appreciating Nigerian literature, I can say with full conviction “I do not get it”.

Grimot Nane

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